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This week’s edition!

Too clever by half

Guest Column

By Grammar Guy

Kids love to tell you precisely how old they are.

Adults, on the other hand, treat age like a tightly guarded state secret.

With kids, the “half” in their age makes all the difference. My son isn’t merely “seven”; he’s “sev­en-and-a-half.” You’d bet­ter get the “half” in there, or he’ll take it as an insult. I have half a mind to di­vulge my age, but I stopped counting a long time ago.

It’s time to take a half-baked look at “half.” Specif­ically, I want to understand the difference between the phrases “a half,” “half a” and “half of.” Which is cor­rect? Do any of them make us sound dumb when we say them? Let’s explore.

I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit “half of.” The preposition “of” is not necessary, but it’s also not wrong. So, when I say, “Half of my records are Beatles records,” that’s fine, but the “of” doesn’t have to be there.

What’s the difference between “a half” and “half a”? After all, it’s important to make a distinction be­tween the “halves” and the “half-nots.”

If I had “half a box” of Lucky Charms cereal, this would indicate that the box is half full of cereal. If this was in my house, that would mean my daughter had dumped out all the ce­real, eaten just the marsh­mallows and then returned the boring cereal bits back in the box. However, if I had “a half box” of Lucky Charms, this could poten­tially mean that a ninja snuck into my pantry and sliced the box in half with his katana, leaving only a half box.

I have half a mind to stop there, but our arrange­ment of “a half” or “half a” has quantitative conse­quences. Much of the time it doesn’t matter, nor does it change the meaning. For example, you could say, “I ran a half-mile this morn­ing.” You could also say, “I ran half a mile this morn­ing.”

However, there’s a major difference between running “a half marathon” and “half a marathon.” A half marathon is a specif­ic running event in which people run 13.1 miles. If you run “a half marathon,” this would suggest that you finished the 13.1-mile race. If you said you ran “half a marathon,” it would seem that you quit the marathon (26.2 miles) when you were only halfway done. Be care­ful when throwing “a half” and “half a” around inter­changeably or your friends might label you as a half-wit.

Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor col­umnist. He is the author of “Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life”. Find more at curtishoney­

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